Monday, April 11, 2005

My Dad Is Dead Interview

Interview with Mark Edwards
conducted by Jim Ebenhoh
via e-mail, April 2005

Mark Edwards formed his one-man band My Dad Is Dead in the mid-1980s, drawing on less-than-perky influences like Joy Division and fellow Clevelanders Pere Ubu. His first two releases, And He’s Not Gonna Take it Anymore and Peace, Love and Murder were masterpieces of dark post-punk, using drum machines and layered guitars to maximum antisocial effect. Today’s Interpol fans, upon hearing this somber mix topped by Mark’s distinctive vocals, would realize that the brooding Brooklynites ripped off more than Joy Division and the Chameleons.

Mark Edwards in 1985, from insert to
My Dad is Dead....And He's Not Gonna Take It Anymore Posted by Hello

In 1988, Mark signed a deal with Homestead Records, which released two classic MDID albums in the late 1980s (Let’s Skip the Details and the double album The Taller You Are The Shorter You Get), plus a collection of interesting also-rans entitled The Best Defense. On tour and on 1989’s The Taller You Are, Mark enlisted the services of backing musicians, including his Cleveland buddies Prisonshake, and the result was a warmer, less isolated sound. Riding the Homestead college rock wave, MDID toured Europe and the US with a number of other fine indie specimens of the day. In the 1990s, MDID switched labels a couple times--from Cleveland’s Scat Records (which released 1991’s Chopping Down the Family Tree and 1993’s Out of Sight Out of Mind) to Austin’s Emperor Jones (which released 1995’s For Richer For Poorer, 1997’s Everyone Wants the Honey But Not the Sting, and a compilation of assorted rarities and live re-recordings entitled Shiner). MDID’s most recent album, The Engine of Commerce, marked a return to the self-recorded, one-man-band format and was released by Vital Cog Records in 2002.

In late 1991, Harvard student and WHRB DJ Jim Ebenhoh enlisted Mark’s help in putting together an 8-hour MDID “Orgy”®, which featured hours of unreleased live material and home recordings, as well as an “interview” which consisted of Mark’s responses to Jim’s questions written out in a series of blue exam books.

Thirteen years later, Jim found himself lurking on the excellent My Dad is Dead home page, which offers MP3 versions of nearly all pre-1990 MDID material and assorted other rarities, as well as a full discography and frequent bloggy updates from Mark himself. When Jim read that Mark was putting the finishing touches on a new album, he decided to get in touch again and request a New Zealand-North Carolina e-mail interview. Mark graciously obliged and talks here about his departure from Ohio, his politics, and the new album, A Divided House, which is expected to be released in mid-2005.

cover art: My Dad Is Dead...And He's Not Gonna Take It Anymore (1985)Posted by Hello

JE: What prompted the move from your long-time home of Cleveland to North Carolina?
ME: Primarily I met my wife in Chapel Hill in 1997. We kept up a long distance relationship for a couple of years before I moved here permanently in 2000. I had thought previously of moving from Cleveland, mostly to get away from the weather, and had plans to move to Austin in 1990 that fell through (even went so far as to spend a couple of weeks there looking for housing and work), due to lack of an income of any kind.

JE: The photos in your latest album The Engine of Commerce are of a closed-down Cleveland Visitor Center, a frozen Lake Erie pier, and a desolate-looking suburban meat market in Kent, Ohio. Was that kind of a cynical tribute to a place you were glad to be leaving behind? What things do you miss about Cleveland, if anything? What things don't you miss?
ME: I'm glad you asked that, because no one asks about the cover photos, (all taken by my wife Jeanne) and all of which have a dual meaning that relates specifically to my feelings about Cleveland, and also about the nature of commerce and how it drives our society. I think you have to be a Clevelander to understand the "Cleveland spirit" that is a strange mix of pessimistic yearning, cautious hopefulness, over-reaching optimism, family loyalty, fear of change, and a stranglehold grip on survival in the face of industrial desolation and poverty. I think that the inside photo of the "Visitor Center" captures that about as well as anything. The sad little vending machine baking in the sun, the huge Welcome sign with double logos over a little wooden closed down shack, the glimpse of the bare ground and industrial landscape in the background. It also emphasizes the hopeful nature of capitalism, and the stark reality and ugliness of when capitalism fails. While Cleveland can also be desolate, it does have many areas of natural beauty, the Lake Erie shoreline being one. However, for me anyway, Cleveland's natural beauty is often tinged with the sadness of neglect and this picture of a pier in winter off Huntington Beach with the empty chair captured that feeling. It also symbolizes the neglect of our natural environment in favor of industrial activity, and that all human activity is eventually washed away by the forces of the planet. The photo on the back of the inside cover "food chain", was actually taken in Middleburg Hts, where I lived for a couple of years. That photo was a "theater of the absurd" moment (as Jeanne calls it), with an Animal Hospital next to Meat Market next to a Chinese restaurant. And of course the train picture printed on the CD itself represents my train pulling out of the Cleveland station, along with nod again to the industrial theme, and the literal "engine" of the content of the CD itself.

Cleveland is the place I grew up and lived much of my adult life, so it will always be a part of my soul. It will always be the place from where my roots grew, so I do miss that "roots" feeling occasionally. And of course I miss my friends there, from whom I've grown farther apart from lack of interaction over the last few years.

Of course I don't miss the snow, the dirty air, the poverty, crime etc. The longer I'm away from it, the harder it seems to be to go back.

Cleveland circa 1992 (photo by JE)Posted by Hello

JE: Did Cleveland have a decent music scene in the 1990s, or was it pretty dead compared to the late 70s and 1980s?
ME: I'm not sure if any city has a "scene". I think that's a myth perpetuated by music journalists who have to lump things in categories for their readers to make sense of them. Cleveland's "scene" was always a pretty disparate group of people (yes there were cliques of people here and there), but I don't think there was ever a cohesiveness that a "scene" implies.

I followed most of the 80's bands into the 90's as most of those folks who hadn't moved away were all still active. However, there was a point when I lost track of the new bands coming up.

JE: Do you enjoy living in the Chapel Hill area? What do you like about it, and what don't you like?
ME: I do like it here a lot. The weather is beautiful most of the time (a little too hot in mid-summer, and occasionally allergy issues, but very little snow, much cleaner air). Diverse mix of people, large influx of youth each year to the colleges which presents its own challenges sometimes, but also keeps things fresh. Many club choices should I choose to see some live music, decent radio. Politically progressive (Chapel Hill/Carrboro is a progressive oasis in a sea of Conservatism here in NC). I occasionally miss big city things, like major league baseball, a large art museum, more choices when shopping for musical equipment etc.

JE: Do you hang out with the Merge Records crowd and go to Cat's Cradle a lot, or are you more detached from the indie scene there?
ME: I do go to the clubs occasionally. The Cradle, the newly invigorated Local 506, Kings in Raleigh if I’m in the mood for a 40-minute trip, a couple of clubs in Durham. I am pretty detached from the local music crowd though. I tried for several months last year to put together a band for live performance, but could never get everyone together on a consistent basis. Everyone has other projects, other commitments, all with more upside for them than playing with a controlling old indie rock guy.

JE: What sort of things do you spend your time doing, aside from making music?
ME: I have a serious job now, in the medical billing industry. In my mid 30's, after a decade or so of giving full time to the music thing and finding myself with about $10 in the bank and no assets other than my musical equipment, I realized I needed to get serious about making a living. It was a serendipitous arrangement, and I now have enough income that I am not in danger of homelessness if the next record doesn't make money.

I also spend a lot of time on political blogs, and music blogs getting things for my radio show.

JE: Where did the amazing cemetery cover photo for "Engine of Commerce" come from?
ME: Again, taken by Jeanne, this is not a cemetery but the Korean War Monument in DC. To me, all war is failure for humanity, though it often is a bounty for commerce. President Bush just recently professed to want to always "err on the side of life". He needs a good couple of weeks without body armor in the middle of the war zone he created to see the true irony of his statement.

JE: Your website says the new album A Divided House will be out in June 2005. Can you tell me a little bit about it and how it differs from your past few albums?
ME: Each of my records has a different focus, a different theme. This is about what I see as the growing rift between sanity and insanity in this country, and how that plays out on a personal level in terms of a growing anxiety among many of us (at least on the progressive side), that things may never be "okay" again in our lifetime, and that we are all stumbling around in the darkness, looking for the light at the end of the tunnel.

JE: Did you record it with a backing band as you did with Everyone Wants the Honey? Or is it one-man-band stuff like your first few albums with Homestead?
ME: This one was very much intentionally a band record. Past contributors to MDID records Chris Burgess (bass), Scott Pickering (drums), Tim Gilbride (guitar), and Scott Lasch (bass) all help out on this one. I went into some debt to record it, and hope that fans will see it as a sonic improvement over the last one.

Mark Edwards (right) with part-time MDIDers Chris Burgess (left) and Scott Pickering (center)
Xmas 2003 in Cleveland. Photo by Jeanne Snodgrass. Posted by Hello

JE: Do you know what label the album will be on, or what the best way will be for someone to get hold of it?
ME: It's increasingly looking like it will be on my own label, so like many things of quality, will be hard to find in a store. I will sell it directly from the website, and hopefully a few online distributors, and will try to get at least one national indie distributor to pick it up.

JE: The title track from your new album is obviously a reference to the fucked up political situation in the US. Do you think your songs are getting political over time? If so, is this a factor of caring more as you mature, or of things genuinely getting more outrageous?
ME: I think if things were running smoothly, I probably wouldn't be paying as much attention, so it's probably the latter. I pretty much ignored politics all through my 20's and 30's... I had other things on my mind… the band, finding a meaningful relationship, getting enough money to eat and pay the rent. The turning point for me was when the Supreme Court installed Bush in 2000, even though he got half a million votes less nationally than Gore. It was nothing more than a bloodless coup and that's when I really started paying attention. There are many days when I sincerely wish I could be blissfully ignorant of the whole thing again.

MDID @ Irving Plaza, NYC 1992 (photo by JE) Posted by Hello

JE: What would you say is the biggest change that's happened in your music over the years? I noticed a real change between the one-man-band sound of the Homestead records and the more organic band-based sound of Chopping Down the Family Tree, Everyone Wants the Honey, and other recordings with Prisonshake-types. But the lyrical content seems to have changed too...
ME: I don't think my music is changed enough. There are many songs that I end up scrapping because they sound too much like something I've done before. You can't get away from who you are I guess. MDID stuff will always be recognizable as such. They lyrical content has grown more introspective and less abstract. I don't know if that's good or bad… Sometimes it feels a little raw to be putting so much of myself out there. It would be a lot easier to write songs about aliens or monkeys, or to talk about how much shit I own or how women want me (that might have to be a single), but that's not what I feel at the time.

JE: What's the best studio you've ever worked in? What was the most enjoyable recording experience?
ME: Beat Farm (owned and operated by Chris Burgess) is still the best. Chris had a way of getting the best sound out of my limited voice that no one has come close to since. I probably had the most fun recording For Richer For Poorer in Nashville. It was a record that came together almost effortlessly, and it seemed at the time like it was going to be "the" record that for better or worse, took MDID into the "mainstream". (remember that overreaching optimism I was talking about?) Uhh… nope.

JE: If you could go back now and re-record anything you've done, what would be the 5 songs you'd re-do, and why?
ME: Well, obviously I've done this once already with the Shiner CD, re-recording Babe In the Woods, Nothing Special, Talk to the Weatherman and a few others. I am a perfectionist, and that little slip on guitar or off key warble in the voice that is imperceptible to everyone else will often become the focus of the song in my ears... So purely for my own listening pleasure, I would probably want to re-record a few dozen of my songs. Mostly though this desire just springs from an idea for a guitar lead, or vocal melody etc. that I come up with well after the recording is finished. I think most of the songs I would want to re-do would be because of my own limitations as a musician. In many ways, using a band of players who are more proficient on their instruments is a "re-write" because the songs all start with demos I record myself, and then present to the band to embellish or change as they see fit (with some boundaries). Many of the songs on the new record underwent drastic changes in arrangement, tempo and dynamics with the addition of the other band members.

JE: You're quite unique in having made your entire catalog for your first five albums and several singles available for free on the web in mp3 format. What prompted this? Are you cheating yourself out of potential royalties from the Homestead albums, or was that not really an issue?
ME: I have always abhorred the business end of music. There's nothing remotely interesting to me about marketing music as a product. Of course I am aware that my disdain for the business side of things is the primary reason for the lack of "commercial success" for the band, from the obvious commercial suicide of calling your band My Dad is Dead, to my distaste of self promotion. Let's face it, to be successful in rock music, you either have to be an asshole, or be friends with a lot of assholes.

Despite that attitude, I've been lucky to enjoy the help of a lot of people over the years who have endured my pompousness and released my records. The fact is, small as my current audience may be, no one at all would know who I was were it not for Homestead, and I'll always be grateful to Gerard Cosloy for signing the band back in 1986. The label also got us a booking agent and got us to Europe twice, and also facilitated our opening slot for the Pixies tour in 1990. That said, financially it was not advantageous for me. The advance money paid for the recording mostly, but royalty payments from Homestead were non-existent. After Gerard left in 1990 to start Matador, and we submitted the final mixes for Chopping Down the Family Tree to the label in 1991, they tried to reduce by half the contractually agreed upon amount for the advance. This gave me an out of the contract and I decided not to do the record with Homestead. After that, they stopped sending me statements. At the time I attempted to purchase the rights back for the 3 Homestead records, but the owner demanded an outrageous sum in the neighborhood of $10,000, about 10 times more money than I could get my hands on at the time. A few years later I came across some Taller CD's in a used store that had 2 different printings on the CD face (the original had a 3rd printing on the face), indicating to me that they had done at least 3 pressings on the CD, while they had only accounted to me for one.

However, this has nothing to do with why the MP3's are stored on my website. They are there purely for my own family's online listening pleasure.

JE: How many times have you toured Europe with MDID? Where would you say your biggest fan base is outside of the US?
ME: We were in Europe twice, as part of a Homestead package tour in 1989 with Bastro and The Happy Flowers and again as headliners in 1990. I would have no idea as far as a foreign fan base, if it even exists. I haven't had any records released in Europe since For Richer's UK release.

MDID's 1990 European touring lineup
(l to r): Tim Gilbride, Mark Edwards, Chris Burgess, Doug Gillard, dog Posted by Hello

JE: What's your favorite city to play in the US?
ME: Chicago. Always a good crowd, always a good time.

JE: What bands were you most excited about sharing a bill with?
ME: That would have to be the Pixies dates in 1990, although we did have opportunities in Cleveland and Columbus to open for many of the bigger "Modern Rock" stars in the 80's, including Throwing Muses, Wolfgang Press, Modern English, the Butthole Surfers, The Creatures, The Wedding Present, and others.

JE: When did you last play live? Do you plan to tour the new album?
ME: The last time we played live was almost 8 years ago, when we did the self booked tour for Everyone Wants the Honey. Audiences for that ranged between 35-150. We still made some money because we played almost every night and traveled on the cheap. But, there’s really no plan to tour at this point. It would have to make sense, and make money (at least enough to pay the band members). I just don't see the demand out there for an MDID "reunion" tour, least of all one that could get away with charging $25 ticket prices like, say, Slint.

JE: What sort of stuff do you listen to now? What are some newer bands that excite you?
ME: Doing the radio show, I've been forced to become more aware of what's out there these days. My wife commented that I seem to like music that sounds like me(!), so it would probably come as no surprise that I like Interpol, Pedro the Lion, Sun Kil Moon, and the rockier Cat Power stuff. There's lots of long running bands who I still keep track of.. Sonic Youth, Idaho, Go Betweens, Wire etc.. Some bands I've really liked you may not have heard of: Groovski (descendants of Polish immigrants living in New Haven CT who sing some of their songs in Polish), The Mitchells (the spirit and sound of Polvo re-born in these guys), The Moaners (new Chapel Hill 2 piece bluesy combo), Uva Ursi (a band I played drums in before I left Cleveland who have one CD out and another on the way).

JE: Do you have any interest or plans to collaborate musically with anyone in NC?
ME: See above...

JE: Are you still a vinyl junkie or are you more into MP3s and I-Pods?
ME: I haven't played records in years. I think I'm pretty much fully integrated into the digital age, although I still prefer the sound of analog to digital recordings. I don't have an IPOD, but I do have a little Panasonic portable CD player and a car stereo that plays MP3's as well. Still, when I accumulate enough MP3's that I like to listen to more than a couple of times, I'll burn these onto a "normal" CD.

JE: You said on your website that you're doing a local radio show for the first time in a while. How can people listen in? Do they have to live in the Chapel Hill area?
ME: I'm still trying to get to the bottom of that. A few people at the station seem to think it's against the law for a low power FM to broadcast over the internet, but I haven't found the law that says that's the case.

JE: How can we stop Clear Channel? Is it enough just not to listen, or do we need to be more activist about it?
ME: Oh man, shut that shit off! The only way the media will ever change in this country is if a more diverse, meaningful media begins to take root, and if enough people tune out the mega-giants that it begins to hurt them in the pocketbook. If it happened with "indie rock", which started out on small college radio stations and in tiny clubs, it can happen with political viewpoints. Unfortunately grassroots works for bad ideas too. That's exactly how the Christian right took hold in this country, by starting out with small networks that grew and grew, until the loonies are now practically in charge of the asylum.

My Dad Is Dead
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